There are things TV can do that movies can’t: the main one being an ability to develop complicated characters and stories over a longer running time. But TV also has to reckon with some things that movies don’t, such as the way the running time is divided. I’m not just talking about carving a narrative into chapters; I’m also talking about the pre-determined length of those chapters, which has been set to satisfy the demands of the network and its advertisers, not the people who are trying to tell the best story they can. When I watch a movie, I’m vaguely aware of the running-time, and have some general idea of when I can expect everything will wrap up. But when I watch TV, I’m keenly aware of the clock, ticking inexorably to the closing credits.
Here’s how I know “Decoy” was a great Justified episode: I didn’t realize it was just about done until there were only about two minutes to go. And that revelation was almost painful. I know “I didn’t want it to end” is a hacky kind of praise, but god damn it, it’s true in this case. I could’ve lived inside of “Decoy” for at least another hour: watching Colt and Tim try to out-think each other; watching Drew tell Raylan things about Arlo that the younger Givens never knew; watching Nick Augustine sit in quiet, smirking contempt of the Crowders; and watching Constable Bob stay frostier than anyone could’ve imagined.
On the other hand, “Decoy” might not have worked so well if it had been open-ended. The main reason why the episode is so effective is because the characters are up against a deadline. The marshals are trying to hustle Drew out of Harlan before the Tonin crew can grab him, and while everybody’s waiting to see what happens next, they talk, knowing they might not have much time left to say what’s been on their minds. More importantly, Justified’s writers know that they have a captive audience, and so can let these characters ramble on about Vietnam, high school, astronauts, or anything else, because we’re not going anywhere until we find out what happens next.
This is most crucial to the scenes between Drew and Raylan, which serve multiple functions. Some of the chat is just informational, as Drew ties up some loose ends, explaining why he kept Waldo Truth’s ID in the bag he gave to Arlo, and explaining that he hid out in Harlan because he met Arlo in Vietnam, where the older Givens was tripping on LSD and reading Louis L’Amour. And some of this long conversation—which stretches from Arlo’s house to Raylan’s old abandoned high school, where Raylan, Drew and Rachel hole up to elude the Tonin gun-thugs—ties into what this season and this series has been about.
Because despite Rachel’s assurances that the marshals are good at what they do, Drew is certain he’s about to die, and so he chides Raylan a little for not really knowing his own father that well, and he tries to explain why he pushed Waldo out of that plane, all without trying to make excuses or make himself look like a hero. But Rachel’s not buying it—she even uses the word “justified” in a negative fashion while dismissing his little story—and Raylan straight-up says that he’s had it with Drew’s “folksy reminiscing.” At the high school, when Drew offers to help them fight off the Tonins if they give him a gun, Raylan snaps that Drew’s a criminal and should stay on his side. As Raylan puts it (in a perfectly Raylan-y way): “Playing the part of a lawman doesn’t mean you know shit about shit.”
Meanwhile, Nick Augustine is pondering the enigma that is Boyd Crowder, with his fancy way of talking, his unique personal style, and his glistening teeth (the latter a gift from the U.S. Army’s enviable dental plan). It’s when Augustine knocks out one of those teeth that it seems—maybe for the first time this season—that Boyd may not be untouchable. But it’s also when Augustine asks Boyd if he knows the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac that Augustine looks weak. He means to use that story as an illustration of how important it is to yield to the will of the powerful, but he’s really proving that he doesn’t know anything about this former evangelist that he’s smacking around. And if there’s anything that “Decoy” proves, it’s that it’s important to know people.
For example, it’s because Boyd knows Raylan—“We dug coal together,” he explains, in the face of Augustine’s skepticism—that he knows which roads Raylan might try to use to sneak Drew out of town, and knows that if those roads prove impassable, Raylan may head to the high school, where they once saw an astronaut land a helicopter on the baseball diamond. There’s a lot in “Decoy” about the connections people have to each other, because they served together in the military, or worked the mines side-by-side. These are bonds in some ways stronger than the bonds of blood relation.
That’s what animates the best parts of “Decoy,” which involve the game of wits between Tim and Colt. Raylan sends Tim and Art down one of his preferred exit routes, as the “decoy” of the title, but Colt is waiting up on a nearby hill, with a Tonin sharpshooter named Mort. (And how perfect is that name for an assassin?) When Tim spots a few abandoned vehicles strategically placed along the road, he senses they might be rigged with explosives, and so he stops the marshal caravan, and calls Colt. (“Hello, Deputy Dawg,” Colt says.) There follows an absolutely fantastic bit of “read between the lines” dialogue between Tim and Colt, as Tim describes a movie he’s writing about an addict in Iraq—“I would like a young Gerard Depardieu to play me,” Colt says—and the two of them reveal what they know about each other’s situation, using coded language and veiled threats. (My favorite is when Colt suggests that maybe his character could hospitalize some rangers in a bar fight, and Tim says, “It’s not a fantasy.”) Tim has Art “circle the wagons” so that he can trigger one of the bombs, while Colt warns Mort not to take any shots, lest he give up their position. This scene—which plays out in pieces throughout the episode—is like a badass western gunfight crossed with a cunning military strategy session. And it ends thrillingly, too, with Tim and Art and company hauling ass and Colt tricking Mort into lending him his rifle, so that he can make Mort mort.
In fact, the Tim/Colt scenes are so good (and the Raylan/Rachel/Drew scenes too) that I really had no choice but to give this episode the highest grade, even though there are two major scenes in “Decoy” that I don’t think entirely work: the Ava/Augustine goad-off, and the torture of Constable Bob by the Tonin thug known as “Yolo.”
Don’t get me wrong: Both scenes are terrific in the way they’re set up, and in some of their particulars; and both end exactly as they should. In the Ava/Augustine scene, Augustine gets fed up with her regal air and starts taunting her about being the madam of a whorehouse, and she takes advantage of his cockiness to throw some brandy in his face and then threaten him with a lighter, while she takes his gun. (She also learns the truth about Johnny’s involvement with the Dixie Mafia in the process.) In the Bob/Yolo scene, Bob pulls what’s become his signature move: waiting until he’s been beaten to the ground, then pulling his knife out of his boot and going to town on his assailant’s leg. Bully for Bob, and for Ava.
But the torture in the Bob/Yolo scene goes on so long that it starts to feel a little gratuitous, especially with the ironically sunny O’Jays tune playing in the background. (It’s all a tad too Tarantino-y.) And while Mike O’Malley is suitably sinister as Augustine, his monologue about Ava’s oral prowess becomes overbearing, even beyond the level that it’s meant to. It’s funny at first, then cruel, then tiresome. And again: I know it’s supposed to be. But the point of the monologue—to both the scene and the episode—could’ve been accomplished in about half the time, which would’ve made Augustine seem all the more villainous, rather than like a petty asshole who talks too much. (Besides, I actually think Augustine rattles Ava more when he suggests that Boyd got her engagement ring from “one of those claw machines at Penny’s.”)
That said, both uphold the tradition of Justified scenes that play out in full, rather than being cut into pieces as the story shifts around various locations. And that sets them apart in this particular episode, which keeps jumping between Arlo’s house, the Crowder’s bar, Colt’s ambush, and Raylan’s high school. Generally speaking, I prefer Justified’s more relaxed, one-scene-at-a-time approach, but the cross-cutting works here, because it makes the “beat the clock” aspects of this episode all the more anxious.
It also works because it gives nearly equal weight to what Raylan wants and what Boyd wants, asking the audience to think about who we’re really pulling for here, and why. Because Raylan’s right: Drew’s a thief, murderer, and drug dealer, and deserves to answer for that, no matter how much he’s reformed. And the same could be said of the Crowders, even if they do have good reasons for all the terrible things they’ve done.
But for the sake of Justified, it’s hard not to want Boyd to skate by somehow. The nature of Raylan’s job is such that he’s not really been required to do anything about Boyd over the past few seasons. How many times have we seen Raylan walk in on capital-C criminals doing capital-C criminal shit and then let them go on about their business because he’s pursuing a different case? So for the purposes of our entertainment, surely the ideal thing would be for Raylan to keep on turning a blind eye, allowing Boyd to survive and even thrive, so that we can keep getting scenes like the marvelous one in “Decoy” where the former classmates try to remember whether that astronaut who came to their high school was the one who played golf on the moon or the one who drove the car. Surely their last moment together in this episode, where Raylan lets Boyd go and makes his old coal-buddy promise to cross his path again real soon—“Count on it,” Boyd growls as he walks away—implies that the day is coming when Boyd will be Raylan’s assignment. It’ll be kind of a cheat to we the viewers if that day gets crammed into the last two episodes of an already crowded season four.
Is it possible that both Justified’s hero and anti-hero can make it out of this scrape unscathed? Well, ask Drew Thompson, who scoots out of Harlan on a coal train at the end of this episode, accompanied by Rachel. The first time I watched “Decoy,” I was thinking throughout that as masterfully plotted and played as this episode is, it was mildly disappointing that it wasn’t more plugged-in to this season’s deeper themes. The second time through, I started noticing more in “Decoy” about the bonds of shared experience, and how this sometimes supersedes these characters’ attempts to divide into “outlaw” and “lawman.” In that context, Drew’s exit speaks volumes about what this season has been saying about how Harlan tries to push its citizens onto predetermined paths. People think there’s only two ways to get out of Harlan: by road or by air. But there’s always another way.
- For the second week in a row, the music really stood out on Justified, though this week, I noticed how little music there was, except when an already tense situation got tenser, at which point the soundtrack (aptly) resembled John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13.
- I don’t like to nitpick plausibility, but given how little time he had, I’m not sure Colt could’ve rigged up that trap for Tim and company. Unless it was already there? I sometimes miss things even though I watch twice, so if there’s a better explanation for why the exploding cars were parked on the road, please let me know.
- Tim deadpans to Art that when he suspects IEDs, he could be having a full-blown PTSD episode. “You get those a lot?” Art asks. “Only when I’m handling firearms in public,” Tim replies.
- Art is appalled that nobody in his posse smokes. (“This is Kentucky, not Sausalito!”) Despite that, Tim is able to fashion a Molotov Cocktail out of an Ale-8-1 bottle.
- Ava meanwhile would like you to know that for every ten years you smoke, your face will age 14 years. She read that on the internet.
- More math in this episode: Art tells Raylan that it’ll take 15 minutes for the Lexington police to fuel up their chopper, then 30 minutes for it to get to Harlan. When Raylan says that they can’t wait for an hour, Art reminds him that 30 + 15 = 45. (“Better part of an hour,” Raylan stubbornly insists.)
- Poor Bob. Even Yolo doesn’t know what a constable is. (But then Yolo also doesn’t know what Bob’s referring to when he says “Drewsitania,” so he’s not the cleverest fellow.)
- The best thing about Yolo is that his very existence allows Raylan to casually refer to him as “Yoda” and “Yoohoo.”
- How cruel is it that Tim gives Colt’s character in his fictional Iraq novel the name “Lt. Dan,” the Forrest Gump fuck-up?
- Hey, it’s the return of Raylan’s Givens’ “Nitflix” Picks! This week: The Wild Bunch. (“You want The Battle Of Bloody Porch?”)
- I couldn’t make out all the VHS tapes on Arlo’s shelves, but I believe I spied Show Boat and Cousins. The Givenses have weird tastes.
- So what’s going to happen in these last two episodes? Will Wynn play a part? Or Limehouse? Or Ellen May? What about Cassie, who seems like a major piece that’s yet to be played in this endgame? Ditto Eve. And was Art’s joke about needing a rocket launcher a bit of foreshadowing?